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Lance Armstrong, 37, is coming back but is not committing to the Tour de France, which he won seven consecutive times

November 05, 2008|Diane Pucin | Pucin is a Times staff writer.

SAN DIEGO — Inside the San Diego Air and Space Technology Center wind tunnel, while a steady rain fell outside, Lance Armstrong was dripping wet and pedaling hard.

"The seat is five inches too high," Armstrong said and bike technicians came running with screwdrivers and furrowed brows. Armstrong squinted to look at numbers that measure his pedal cadence, his oxygen intake, his calorie burning. He was here to re-perfect his bicycle form.

His competitive urge? That is just fine.

Armstrong, 37, is strongly into a cycling comeback that brought him to a Texas time-trial race last weekend (the Tour of Gruene, which Armstrong won), and here Tuesday to become immersed in the serious work of sculpting the body and tweaking the bike.

After more than three years removed from competitive racing, Armstrong announced last summer that he would compete in 2009 at races like the Amgen Tour of California in February and at the quirky Giro d'Italia -- where the leader wears pink instead of yellow -- in May.

But Armstrong has refused to commit himself to riding at the Tour de France, the race he won a record seven consecutive times, a race that gave him international sporting fame and the yellow jersey that turned into his own symbol -- a yellow rubber wristband -- to demonstrate support for cancer survivor Armstrong's foundation, Livestrong.

He hemmed and hawed again Tuesday, saying he wasn't playing games about his indecision but that above all else he wanted to avoid what he called "tension" in this comeback project.

Then, speaking more bluntly, he said his final two rides at the Tour de France were "not fun" and that short of becoming a French citizen, "and maybe not even then," he didn't think there was any way he and France could kiss and make up.

And with that, Armstrong got back on the bike and Chris Carmichael, his longtime physical trainer, was asked whether he would be surprised if Armstrong didn't ride in the 2009 Tour.

"I would be very surprised," Carmichael said.

It was a verbally feisty and physically fit Armstrong who allowed the media to take a peek at his wind tunnel training.

On the Trek bike, the same model he rode at the 2005 Tour, Armstrong fiddled with everything -- the bars, the seat, the pedals. Off the bike, Armstrong was chatty.

The subject of Linus Gerdemann came up. Last week, Gerdemann, a 26-year-old German cyclist, called Armstrong's return a bad thing.

"This is not positive for the credibility of cycling," Gerdemann said. "But there's nothing anyone can do about it."

He was underscoring comments made by German media executives in September when ARD, a large German television network, announced it would not televise major cycling events because of continued doping scandals.

"For us, Armstrong is a piece of the past we don't want to see again," Rolf-Dieter Ganz said in the Die Welt newspaper. "The future belongs to young riders, certainly not to Armstrong's generation."

"I don't even know who that is," Armstrong said. "I am older. I am part of the older generation. I've been around a long time and I don't know who the hell Linus Gerdemann is, but when I rolled up to the line in 1992 I started winning races and when I roll up in 2009 I'm going to be winning races. And so he better hope he doesn't get in a breakaway with me because I've got a good hard drive."

The double meaning was that Armstrong's hard drive is both his memory and his cycling engine and it is that fire Carmichael said was driving this comeback.

"In basic terms," Carmichael said, "he's a killer and he wants to kill."

As for the doping suspicions, Gerdemann is not alone. Although Armstrong never failed a doping test while setting cycling records, Tour de France officials and European media constantly confronted Armstrong with accusations of doping.

And in the three years that Armstrong has been away from professional cycling, many of his rivals have retired (Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov) because of failed drug tests or served doping suspensions (Ivan Basso).

But Armstrong said Tuesday that it is not a doping cloud that causes tension between him and the Tour de France.

"I watch sports every weekend," said Armstrong, who is an Austin native and noted Texas football fan. "I watched Texas play at Texas Tech and the Tech fans hated, hated Texas, hated them. And I hated football after that game.

"This relationship between me and France, this is not what the media likes to play up, all this suspicion around doping. That suspicion exists in cycling in general.

"It's very personal, I think, because of the way I race the Tour. Even what's going on today, the methodical approach, the robotic approach to racing, not showing any emotion, not showing pain and suffering or ease, not showing anything, is not a popular style of racing in France.

"To them panache is the guy who suffers, who's swinging all over his bike and is about to fall off. I never found that an effective way to try and win."

The very complicated relationship between Armstrong and the Tour de France is exactly why Carmichael believes Armstrong will be on the starting line July 4 in Monaco.

"I think it would be a shame if Lance didn't ride," Carmichael said. "For the Tour not to have Lance would be a disservice to the fans, to the event, to the history of the sport of cycling and to Lance.

"Lance Armstrong has done a lot for the Tour de France and obviously it's a symbiotic relationship because the Tour de France has done a lot for Lance. To not have him back at the Tour would just be ridiculous."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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